Why Now?

Amy Cotterill, Museum Development Officer, explains why Snapping the Stiletto is looking back on the past hundred years and examines why the stories we’re uncovering are relevant today.

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Elizabeth Moss as Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale

Sunday saw the return of The Handmaids Tale to Channel 4. Based on the novel by Margaret Attwood, it depicts a future where American women’s rights have been thoroughly supressed. They are not allowed to read, have jobs or have bank accounts.

 

Over the weekend, I read this interview with Margaret Atwood, discussing how the book is frighteningly relevant today, arguably more so then when it was first published in the 1980s. It made me think about this project, why I instigated it and how much has changed for women (both positively and negatively) in just the last couple of years since I started working on it.

 

Relevance when it was originally written…

Things began back in 2016, when museums across Essex were taking part in a WW1 commemoration project entitled Now the Last Poppy Has Fallen. The project was coming to an end and several museums asked me to support them in running another countywide project. A quick Google search revealed that 2018 marks 100 years since the first UK women got the vote, 90 years since women were able to vote on equal terms with men and 50 years since women employed by Ford at Dagenham went on strike for equal pay. Given the local and national relevance, and the negative stereotype surrounding “Essex Girls”, a project celebrating the women of Essex was an obvious choice for all of us. We wanted to explore how women’s lives have changed during this last century and highlight stories of inspiring individuals to help shift perceptions of what it actually means to be an Essex woman.

 

As I worked with the museums to flesh out the project, the need for a project researching the history of women in the county became very clear. Most museums had very little knowledge of what was in their collection regarding women’s history. For most of the past hundred years, museum collections have been assembled and researched by men, often pursuing their own particular areas of interest. Women’s history has been very much neglected. We knew that the museum collections contained objects that could tell stories of many amazing women, but we lacked the information to know what those stories are.

 

While I was writing our application to the Esmee Fairbairn Collections Fund, the “period tax” and debates around equal pay were very much in the news, and this certainly informed how the project was developed.

Consulting with the museums, we were very clear that this project was about two things.

  1. Improving museum’s own understanding of Essex women’s history over the past hundred years and how that is reflected within their collections
  2. Sharing the stories we uncover with as many people as possible

 

Our definition of an “Essex woman” is very broad and we have always wanted to make sure that the stories include those of women who migrated to Essex from around the world.

It was also clear to us that we reach people who don’t usually visit museums with our project, we need to work with members of the public to help plan and deliver the project. Our Project Manager Pippa Smith has been conducting a lot of consultation to find out what themes to focus our research on and how we can present the information to reach as many people as possible.

 

Relevance now…

I always believed that in showing how much women’s lives have changes, we would highlight how much still needs to change, but I was unprepared for how much the news would be dominated by women’s rights during the last two years. The election of Donald Trump and the protest marches this sparked, #MeToo, Meghan Markle giving up her career as an actress when she got married and the Windrush Scandal at a time when we are trying to promote how much migrant women have done for our county. The gender pay gap and period poverty have not gone away and continue to be issues that need addressing.

 

Today is the Irish Referendum on the Eighth Amendment. Depending on the outcome, women there may gain the rights that Essex women have had since 1967 while in America, Trump’s administration is seeking to cut funding to family planning clinics if they provide “abortion related services”.

 

The research done by our incredible volunteers has uncovered so many parallels to these “modern” themes. The protests of the suffrage movement, women being sacked as teachers because they had married or finding that their pay had been cut when they returned from honeymoon because “their husband would be providing for them”, the first women’s clinics being founded in Essex during and after World War 1…

 

I am already proud of the work this project is doing, but I hope that when it ends in Autumn 2019, we can say that we have not only been relevant, but that we have led to positive changes for local women.

 

If you to be involved in Snapping the Stiletto, we have numerous volunteering opportunities, including helping with events and writing exhibition text. Find out more here. New opportunities are added regularly so do keep checking back.

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Focus On… Colchester Museums

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Colchester Borough Council runs three museums in the town, Colchester Castle, which focuses on archaeology, Hollytrees which contains their social history collections and the Natural History Museum, which focuses on the science wildlife habitats, biodiversity and climate change.

 

As part of Snapping the Stiletto, Colchester Museums want to learn more about Mrs Bertha Mason. Bertha, along with her husband and sons, set up the E. N Mason & Sons printing company. Their factory was situated in the Arclight works on Maidenburgh St in Colchester between 1921 and 1938 when it moved to Cowdray Avenue. It made some of Britain’s very first photocopiers amongst other copying technologies.

The museum holds an archive of material relating to the Mason family, including photographs of and letters from/to Bertha. They are looking for a volunteer to help by scanning this material and adding to the information about each piece. The volunteer can also spend a day at the Essex Record Office as there are a variety of documents and oral history recordings in their archive relating to the Mason family and the Arclight printing works.

To volunteer to help with the research, or to find out more, click here. 

 

The museum is also looking for volunteers to share their posts on social media, promoting the museum and the work it does. You can sign up here to help and follow their Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts.

Uncovering the Past at Essex Record Office

One of our key partners in this project is the Essex Record Office who are helping us with advice, research and training.

The ERO holds archives that take up nearly eight miles of shelves and the items they care for include parish registers, diaries, letters, court records, wartime records, manorial records and school records. It’s also home to the Essex Sound and Video Archive.

To mark 100 years since the Representation of the People Act the ERO blog has celebrated Essex women such as suffrage campaigners, WWI Nurse Kate Luard  and Matron of Black Notley Hospital Mary Ellen Ruck.

Josephine Culling

Several of our volunteer challenges suggest that you could visit the ERO to look for more information about a particular person such as Katherine Mina Courtuald and Josephine Culling.

Other challenges ask people to look for stories of women working in engineering at different companies such as Ford, Paxman, Bentalls and Marconi and the ERO holds many different company newsletters which could be a great starting point for this.

 

 

If you have never visited a Record Office before it may feel a bit daunting but staff are there to help and you can find a useful guide here.

The Record Office looks after unique, irreplaceable historic material so there are a few key things to remember as these are all to minimise the risk of damage.

It is worth being aware before you visit that they ask-

  • Please bring as little as possible into the Searchroom
  • store your bags in the locker room (free to use and located next to the Searchroom)
  • Please use a pencil rather than a pen
  • You can use laptops and tablets, but cases must be left in the locker room
  • They provide transparent wallets for holding notes and small items

It’s a good idea to bring a warm layer to wear as the searchroom is kept cool (22°C) to help preserve documents (a good place to visit in a heatwave!)

If you’d like a tour of the searchroom there is one coming up on May 30th and you can book here

Just be warned- Record Offices are full of fascinating documents- I’ve lost hours in them!

Focus on… The Museum of Power

 

The Museum of Power, housed in a former water pumping station is based at Langford (about a mile from Maldon). It houses a varied collection of industrial history ranging from an overhead machine shop to a petrol powered iron.

The museum runs a range of event days and has the ‘Lilleshall’ triple expansion steam pump which is now back in steam.

They also have a thriving education programme and are keen to enthuse young people with a love of science and engineering.

 

 

Current exhibitions include ‘Women in Engineering’ and the museum has items in its collection from a whole range of Essex engineering companies and wants to uncover stories of the women who worked at these firms. They are particularly keen to find out more about female workers at Ford of Dunton, Paxman of Colchester and Bentalls of Heybridge and you can sign up to volunteer and help the museum with their research.

 

The museum is looking for untold stories about the roles of women who worked at the Museum of Power or within the associated Essex & Suffolk Water Treatment Plant at Langford nr Maldon to build their ‘family history’ and find out their impact on the water industry and local/national social history.  They would love to find families to invite to a ‘family of the Museum’ party so that they can share the untold stories and memories.

 

 

100 volunteers and counting

I missed the actual moment when our 100th volunteer actually signed up but last weekend we passed the 100 mark and now have 104 people signed up on our Volunteer Makers site to help with the project.

Since we launched the volunteering programme on March 8th (International Women’s day) there have been 30 challenges offered by our 12 partner museums and we estimate that volunteers have given us 227 hours of their time.

It’s really interesting to see how the minutes add up. Our Just a Minute challenges have been popular and people who have signed up to share information on social media have spent around 16 hours on this- it may not feel like you are doing much at the time but every tweet or Facebook share really adds up! We could do with some more help on this, particularly for our own Social Media accounts so please sign up to help us spread the word about the project.

Some of the Hour or Two challenges have been very popular and the most popular of these saw people deciphering 100-year-old handwriting in a Police Pocketbook- trickier than I first thought!

Alice Wilson’s Pocketbook from the Essex Police Museum

We were surprised by how many of you were keen to transcribe oral histories and have paused this while we work out how to convert more old recordings on tape so we can email them out to you. Lots of volunteers are looking online for stories of women who worked at various engineering companies across Essex and we are particularly keen to get more help looking for stories of women who worked at Fords, Paxman or Bentalls.

Spare a Day challenges have seen people sign up to research stories at the Essex Record Office, look at a collection at the Essex Fire Museum and research untold stories for Epping Forest District Museum. Brightlingsea and Braintree museum would both like some help with research so have a look here if you think you could spare some time.

Volunteers who have a little more free time have been signing up to the Regular Help Challenges. A team in Southend have made great progress researching Rosina Sky- a local suffragette and are also exploring the work of Adelaide Hawken who set up one of the first mother and baby clinics in Southend. Other volunteers are working with museums to investigate their collections or are spending time researching a specific story. If you’d like to help a museum out then the Museum of Power would really like your help to create a Museum of power party

A mother and baby clinic in Southend

We are just launching some team challenges and if you’d like to help us out at events please have a look at this challenge and see whether it’s the sort of thing you’d enjoy.

Thanks to all of our volunteers- the project wouldn’t work without you are we are grateful for every minute of the time you give us!

Join a team

For the project we have been thinking about volunteering a little differently and have created challenges that you can do from home in a few minutes, challenges that we can send to you to do in your own time at home, challenges that ask you to visit a library or record office to do some research for us an challenges that get you into a museum to investigate their collections.

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We are now asking for people to sign up for spaces for some longer term team challenges to help the project communicate the results of all of this research and investigation which is being carried out by over 100 volunteers.

As part of the project we will be designing a travelling exhibition which will go to at least six museums and libraries later this year and next. We don’t want this to be just us deciding what stories we tell, what pictures we use and what the end result looks like- as so many people across Essex are working with us as volunteers to uncover stories of strong Essex women we want a team from across Essex to work with us to tell these stories.

http://snappingthestiletto.volunteermakers.org/get-involved/regular-help/help-us-design-an-exhibition/37/

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We are also being asked to go along to community events and talk to people about what we are uncovering so we’d like a group of people to help with this (our Events Team).

http://snappingthestiletto.volunteermakers.org/get-involved/work-as-a-team/become-part-of-snapping-the-stiletto-events-team/36/

Lastly as well as being invited to existing events we want to think hard about telling these stories outside of museums and libraries and are recruiting an ’Engagement Team’ to help us think about different places to go and different ways to celebrate the strong Essex women of the last 100 years.

http://snappingthestiletto.volunteermakers.org/get-involved/work-as-a-team/join-the-engagement-team/40/

All of these challenges will need a time commitment and this will include some training devised by the Snapping the Stiletto team along with different experts. The training won’t be sitting in a room listening to someone but will be hands-on, interactive and (we hope) fun! You may end up telling stories, improvising jokes, even singing songs or devising dance moves as well as learning about how people working in museums think about and plan for exhibitions and events.

There are limited spaces for these challenge and we probably won’t be able to fit in everyone who is keen so we’ll be doing our best to make sure that all of Essex is represented with a whole mix of people from across the county.

Focus on…The Essex Fire Museum

The Essex Fire Museum in Grays has a great collection of historic fire engines, firefighting equipment, uniforms and photographs that tell the story of how firefighting has changed over the years. Today’s blog is a guest blog by Snapping the Stiletto volunteer Becky Wash who signed up to help the museum investigate their collection to look for stories of women in the service over the last 100 years.

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Volunteering at the Essex Fire Museum

Although I work full-time, I saw that the Essex Fire Museum was offering one day volunteer opportunities so I signed up to take part.

We started the morning with a discussion about the history of the fire service and the role women played. I asked questions and listened to interesting stories retold by Fire Museum volunteers, which we noted as potential stories we could use for the project.

I got to look within the museum’s displays to find objects and create a list of items that may be suitable for display in the exhibition. We also took photographs of suitable artefacts.

Then I searched through the handwritten accessions registers, searching for more suitable artefacts that could help tell the story of women in the Essex Fire Service, and created a list.

 

IMG_20180501_125245We then visited the museum store and I got to see first-hand, how the objects were stored, and we were able to handle some of them.

We decided that we would like to scan some of the paper documents and photographs and I hope to return to assist with this in the near future.